June 8, 2010
Aside from the crass commercialization of the underground rock scene of the 80s, the invention of “alternative” music, and the subsequent deluge of thinly-veiled, entirely corporate rock groups sent to piss on Kurt Cobain’s grave, the 90s were a hotbed of ill-advised genre revivals. Every couple of years, something that had already been done came back. These revivals were alternately good (punk-ska melding the positive vibes and dance-y rhythms of 2 Tone with punk rock’s manic energy), and horrible (while “Boy bands” may not seem like the real stuff of revival, the Backstreet Boys, et. al, reminded me of nothing more than the New Kids on the Block, version 2.0). In the case of the former, the revival happened on the underground – it was great to live in Detroit in the mid 90s, seeing ten or fifteen different ska bands every weekend, and not being bombarded with it on the radio – until the end. In the case of the latter, the revival was all over the mass media, radio and television coated with slickly produced teen idol pop (and if you were just a few months too old for the New Kids on the Block, version 2.0 wasn’t even bad in a good way. It was just bad).
A truly weird genre that came back into prominence in the 90s, though, was the swing revival. Overlapping the punk ska scene and the Boy band juggernaut, there were a couple of funny years in there where it was somehow cool to put on a zoot suit, consume cigars and fine whiskey, dance in an antiquated and difficult-to-master way, and eke out a living selling pencils and dice on street corners. Okay, not so much that last one, but swing WAS a completely period fetishistic movement based as much around aping the fashion of the day as it was about the music; which, itself, was not updated from the music of the period, beyond heightened production values.
The movement, as far as I can tell, began with the 1989 formation of Royal Crown Revue-who you may remember as the “Hey! Pachuco!” band Jim Carrey grooved to in The Mask. For a few years, Royal Crown Revue and their ilk (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc.) served a strange, commercial-yet-not-in-your-face role as “the band that plays when something zany/hip happens” in movies and commercials. To be fair, though, this was how most ska bands that transcended the underground scene made their first impression on the commercial map-remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones as the cool dance group that Alicia Silverstone and friends groove to in Clueless, or the rally band at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s home games in BASEketball (a role that Reel Big Fish ultimately played in real life, too, briefly providing theme music for the Florida Marlins in the late 90s).